Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP
Public repentance for past wrongs
Dr. Jeffrey Haggray
February 14, 2019
What acts of confession, repentance and remediation are most appropriate for high-profile persons when their past indefensible actions are exposed?
I am not exploring here a process for determining guilt or innocence, or even the sincerity of a public apology. Nor am I questioning whether well-aged illegal or criminal acts in the past should be prosecuted in keeping with laws when uncovered years later. I agree that there are times when individuals should be held responsible for past actions or even deemed disqualified to hold certain positions of public trust because of past transgressions, especially when their placement in the role in question undermines the integrity of that office or endangers others.
At issue here is that, in this age of widespread social and political polarization, coupled with the rapid spread of information and misinformation on social media and round-the-clock news cycles, there is often a tremendous rush to indict, prosecute and condemn persons who are high-profile personalities—whether public officials, entertainers or others—when they are alleged or found to have violated certain social mores or public standards many years earlier, sometimes long before their rise to notoriety. At such times, when the community’s adrenaline is fueled by deep-seated disappointment, anger and the profound sense that we have been let down by someone who we were led to trust previously, an intense unwillingness arises in the heat of the moment to allow consideration of fundamental principles of sound judgment. Momentary intolerance fails to consider the violator’s age, social context, dominant cultural perspectives and other factors of the past. Although the person might be 10, 25 or 35 years removed from the incident in question, we feel compelled to judge him or her by the mood of the current time. It is obvious to us now that the person should have known better then.
Do we truly arrive at our best verdicts when we permit the crowdsourcing of moral judgment based on limited information, sound bites, press conferences and anonymous allegations to prevail over civil discourse and informed deliberation? Ours is the “gotcha” age. Fair judgment is especially difficult when some of the accusers are, themselves, guilty of past indiscretions or, worse, prompted by ill-formed biases, scorn or political retribution. It would be great if the rest of us were without past sins. However, I suspect that, were we to plunge and scrub the biographies of most people in high-profile positions, we would find words or actions that we would not want published today.
Do we truly arrive at our best verdicts when we permit the crowdsourcing of moral judgment based on limited information, sound bites, press conferences and anonymous allegations to prevail over civil discourse and informed deliberation?
These considerations do not make public judgment any easier. Nevertheless, we would do well to explore more critically what makes for societal remediation on the part of violators when they publicly repent for past wrongs. Is the death penalty for one’s public career always suitable for past transgressions? Might the high-profile individual who is truly repentant use his or her past experiences, influence and position to testify broadly about how he or she arrived at illumination or conversion? Does space exist for them to become agents of reparation and transformation in a society in which the transgressions that they committed years ago are still being committed by a new generation?
Dr. Jeffrey Haggray is executive director, American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Judson Press.
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